To celebrate the launch of our blog for Exposed: A History of Lingerie, we bring you an interview with Colleen Hill, associate curator of accessories at The Museum at FIT. In addition to organizing Exposed and authoring the book accompanying the show, Colleen has co-curated several MFIT exhibitions, including Shoe Obsession, Eco-Fashion: Going Green, and Fashion A-Z: Part One and Part Two. Exposed is on view from now until November 15, 2014 so be sure to visit the museum and check out the online exhibition.
– What drew you to the topic of lingerie? Can you talk about your process in putting together the exhibition? With such a broad topic, where does one begin?
CH: I’ve always loved lingerie. As a teenager, I incorporated vintage slips and bed jackets into my wardrobe. My interest in the MFIT lingerie collection began in 2007, when I was organizing an exhibition entitled Seduction. Although I only included a small selection of lingerie in that show, I got a sense of how many important lingerie garments were in the Museum’s permanent collection. More recently, MFIT received several donations of especially beautiful lingerie, such as a 1940s couture nightgown by Juel Park, and a gorgeous bandeau bra from the 1920s.
Since the Museum has such a vast collection of lingerie, I began by selecting some of the most visually striking and intricately crafted pieces. At the same time, I started to conduct preliminary research to determine which garments were most historically important. Finally, I researched each object individually, focusing on primary sources such as magazines, catalogs, and advertisements. These sources also helped our team to determine how many of the garments would have looked on the body, so that our mannequins could be dressed as accurately as possible.
– As you worked on the exhibition, did any facts about lingerie’s history surprise you?
CH: One of my favorite research discoveries was a sheer bra, called the “Illusion,” that was designed in 1949. In many ways, it was similar to Rudi Genreich’s “no bra” bra of the 1960s. I discovered the earlier example in a trade magazine entitled Corsets and Underwear Review. At some point, a reader had circled the photograph of the Illusion bra and written “disgusting” next to it. It was fascinating to see such a reaction! It’s likely that some people thought Gernreich’s sheer bras to be distasteful too, of course—but his underwear did sell very well, and it’s essential to lingerie history. There are still styles similar to the “no bra” sold today.
– Are there any lingerie stories that couldn’t be conveyed in the small space of a gallery label?
CH: Oh yes, many! The history of lingerie is especially complex, so condensing my research into short, informative labels was a challenge. I wish I could have delved more into the topic of lingerie and feminism during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, or changing ideas of women’s sexuality and its relation to lingerie during the early 20th century.
– Can you tell us about the objects that were brought into MFIT’s collection exclusively for Exposed?
CH: I acquired contemporary lingerie from six different makers. What I find especially important to today’s lingerie market is the range of options available to women, which I tried to represent with my selections. A set by Chantal Thomass has an overtly seductive, retro styling, complete with suspenders. A bodysuit by Suki Cohen can be worn as shapewear, but its architectural cutouts are decidedly edgy and fashionable. A set by Hanky Panky underscores that lingerie need not be uncomfortable or prohibitively expensive to be stylish.
– Do you have a favorite object in the exhibition?
CH: It’s difficult to pick a favorite, but one stand out piece is an early 1930s corselet by Cadolle. A corselet is basically an “all-in-one” garment. This example smooths the waist and hips using flexible strips of boning, and also features a soft-cup bra and an attached slip. Its construction is superb—and a few visitors have told me they wish they could wear something similar as a cocktail dress! One can imagine how this corselet would have been the perfect undergarment to be worn beneath the slinky, bias-cut gowns of the 1930s.
– Based on your research for Exposed, what do you imagine the future of lingerie to be?
CH: Many women told me they wished it were easier to find unpadded, unstructured bras—particularly in smaller cup sizes. Padded and push-up bras have been popular for about 20 years, and I think women are finally looking for something different and more natural. There’s also an expanding market for mid-priced styles that can be worn as “everyday” underwear, but that are well-made and use high quality materials. At the moment, the lingerie market is dominated by large chain stores on one end of the spectrum, and high-end, specialized lingerie on the other.
Keep following the blog for more lingerie history! We’ll be posting photos, interviews, and excerpts from the book Exposed: A History of Lingerie. Visit the show at MFIT today and share your thoughts on social media with #lingeriehistory